Muse – “Drones”

Grade: D+

Key Track: “Reapers”

When you’re a band that’s been making the same album over and over again for 15 years, you should know better than to call it “Drones.” I won’t even touch the easy joke, nor will I say anything about the art-rocity on the cover. Let’s just not even spend time there.

Muse makes music for teenagers. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but they do. I was 14 when “Absolution” came out, and it rocked my world for a while. “Drones” takes a predictable anti-war stance, and man, if this had come out a decade ago, I would’ve fallen in love with it like it was any girl I talked to. Certain songs from “Drones” have Hot Topic-primed lyrics, down to a concept that’s confusing and inconsistent.

“Drones” supposedly follows someone as they join a military and become a human drone, or something Muse-y like that. It’s not always coherent, and it leads to very Muse-y songs like “Defector,” that has a chorus of “I’m free from society / You can’t control me,” or “Revolt,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The album’s second track is an interlude, of a drill sergeant prepping a soldier to be a “killing machine,” which is pretty much the equivalent to Kevin James starring in “Apocalypse Now.”

Musically, Muse looked to get back to basics on “Drones.” It doesn’t always work, but they have stripped themselves down a bit compared to the past few albums. Given that “The 2nd Law” had a literal dubstep song, hearing just the guitar-bass-piano-drums combo of the “Origin of Symmetry” days is a relief. It’s not enough – the strength of Muse’s early albums lies in their restlessness, as they clearly had ambitions that they couldn’t yet meet. But it is still an improvement. “Reapers” is the closest to classic Muse (note: to me classic Muse is “Newborn”). 10+ minute penultimate track “The Globalist” also hits old Muse for a while, before falling into terrible ballad territory (and giving way to the closer, “Drones,” which is Matt Bellamy a capella layered over himself – yikes).

Compared to the slough they’ve been slinging at us for a few years, “Drones” isn’t so bad. But there’s a second interlude on the album that’s part of a speech from JFK and it’s just like, come on guys. You’re British. This album is about drones. None of it makes any sense. Muse revel in their corniness, and it affects their songwriting. There’s some generally good Muse songs on this album, but they’re too few and far between to make you think they’re a band worth paying attention to again. 15 year-olds are probably going to pick this album up, and it might inspire them – that’s good. “Absolution” inspired me. It made me more political, and more musical. But it also advanced me past self-serving bands like Muse. Ten years from now, when Muse hits 31 years as a band, the kids that picked up “Drones” are going to smirk at themselves, at how far they’ve come since those teenage days.

-By Andrew McNally

White Lies – “Big TV”

(Photo Credit: The Vinyl Scout)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Big TV,” “There Goes Our Love Again”

There’s something inherently interesting about White Lies. On paper, they’re doing nothing original, but their albums are entrancing. There are plenty of bands today doing 80’s throwbacks – the Killers, Muse and Editors jump to mind. But White Lies can add enough depth to their songs to make them their own, and not just rehashed ballads that wouldn’t please Ian Curtis at all. Their third album sees little in the way of ambition, similar to 2010’s “Ritual.” And with an overabundance of ballads, it shouldn’t be an enjoyable record at all. But leave it to White Lies to be able to entice the listener to keep the album on for unexplainable reasons.

The beauty of White Lies’ simplicity is how they don’t simply rebrand 80’s alt-ballads. Every song on this album is synth-driven, to the point where it acts as a running narrative. But they also take the counter-counter-culture 80’s gloom, a la Depeche Mode and non-hair metal bands. The album exists as a blending of two 80’s sounds, many years too late. Still more, they often add guitar crunch and painfully reflecting lyrics to kick it into today’s world. For music that sounds easy and repetitive, there are always a few things going on.

“Death” is easily the most ambitious song from the band. Sadly, it is the first track on their first album. With each album, they’ve relied more and more on this formula. While it still proves successful, the band is starting to drag. There are too many slow songs here. They’re broken up nicely by a few up-tempo songs, and two short instrumental interludes, a first for the band. But the album can’t help but feel a little bloated. While still entirely listenable, it begs the question of how long the band will be able to keep this going without getting too boring. Or too spacey. The album sounds more spacey, like Muse at their peak, before they too got too bloated and boring.

Still, the album is an intriguing listen, because White Lies are one of the few bands today that can pull off an album like “Big TV” and get away with it. It’s inexplicably enjoyable, though very faulted. The ballads come too early and too often, and many are forgettable on their own. As an album, though, each song works, and it results in a nice, somewhat easy listen.

If you like this, try: “Given to the Wild” by the Maccabees (2012), another album of largely down-tempo songs that’s still totally enjoyable.

-By Andrew McNally

30 Seconds to Mars – “Love Lust Faith + Dreams”

30 Seconds to Mars

Grade: C

Best Tracks: “Pyres of Varanasi,” “Northern Lights”

30 Seconds to Mars have never been ones to please the critics, with their often corny and awkward pairings of genres, and at most points, their fourth album never strays too far beyond that. Bandleader Jared Leto has always embraced the corniness of his lyrics and the music of his backing band. “Love Lust Faith + Dreams” feels no less cheesy or misguided than their previous efforts.

Lyrically, Leto’s meandering musings on the vague concepts can be summed up in the album’s title. The album is split thematically into four segments, each word in the album’s title. While Leto does stretch deeper and darker than his previous albums, a majority of the metaphors presented here are still largely depthless. The ‘faith’ section in particular is largely void of originality.

Musically, however, I have to applaud 30 Seconds to Mars. For a band that has never been very respected, they do find ways to reinvent themselves. The then-popular pop-emo brand of their second album was quite a different sound than their industrial-based debut. This album is louder, more experimental and electronic based, a sharp change from their vocally loud and musically quiet, unstructured third album “This Is War.” “Love Lust Faith + Dreams” sounds, at points, like a band too heavily inspired by Muse but more inventive. It also, at points, resembles a band that enjoyed the “Inception” soundtrack far more than they should have. But I was actually impressed by the music of this album. The more experimental nature diversified the individual songs more than their previous efforts. The ‘dream’ sequence is musically effective, introduced by “Convergence,” although the whole segment seems to build to a largely unsatisfactory ending.

I would wager to say that this is 30 Seconds to Mars’ best album, but I would not go out of the way to recommend it. Musically strong but lyrically, the band is still flailing in their typically cheesy nature, grasping at large concepts and ideas but rarely hitting the mark with any depth. 30 Seconds to Mars fans will surely love it, and they might even gain some new fans. “Love Lust Faith + Dreams” is not going to down as one of the year’s best, but it is a reasonable listen for general fans of the band.

-Andrew McNally